Rainer Knopff: Alberta's No-Coal coalition takes shape

The path to Alberta's economic recovery lies in just about anything but coal

The following is a truncated version of a paper recently published by the University of Calgary School of Public Policy. Rainer Knopff is a professor emeritus of that school.

By: Rainer Knopff

Alberta’s coal-fired political conflagration has revealed a broad and deep anti-coal animus. Polling tells us that about 70 per cent of Albertans oppose the Kenney government’s efforts to increase coal mining in the eastern slopes. Contributing to this alliance are those who want Oil and Gas but Not Coal (OGNC) to help drive Alberta’s economy.

Take Brian Jean, for example. The former leader of the Wildrose party and co-founder of the UCP recently declared himself “proudly pro-oilsands and pro-resource development” but “not convinced that the small net benefits we get from any new open-pit coal mines will be worth the price.” There it is: oil and gas but not coal.

This OGNC perspective crosses party lines. Alberta’s NDP voters mostly don’t want to shut down the oil and gas sector, and they much prefer it to coal. At the same time, you don’t get 70 per cent opposition to eastern-slopes mining without a goodly number of coal-averse UCP voters who agree with Brian Jean; nor do you get the torrent of opposition to coal that has come from local governments in heavily UCP constituencies.

Today’s OGNC conservatives build on a tradition that goes back to the famous Coal Development Policy adopted in 1976 by the government of Peter Lougheed, who talked about coal mining raising greater “cost-benefit” concerns than oil and gas. This, he explained, is why his government had decided to promote oil and gas, including the mineable oil sands, and to limit coal.

Lougheed’s policy constrained coal especially in the eastern slopes. As Lougheed’s energy minister Don Getty made clear, that meant forfeiting much of the metallurgical or steelmaking coal found in this iconic and environmentally sensitive region.

The 1976 policy was not similarly willing to forfeit the lower quality “thermal” coal found elsewhere in the province. As late as 2000, such coal accounted for 80 per cent of Alberta’s power generation. Not only could thermal coal be strip mined at lower environmental cost outside the eastern slopes, the 1976 policy considered it “a clean, low polluting source of thermal energy” because of its “low sulphur content.”

As noted by Sonya Savage, the UCP’s energy minister, the Lougheed policy’s approval of thermal coal “predated our modern understanding on climate change.” Alberta now wants its cleaner natural gas to reduce coal-fired power generation both abroad and at home. Coal’s contribution to the provincial grid was down to about 25 per cent in 2020 and is projected, with bipartisan support, to end as early as 2023. The era of “thermal coal” is coming to an end, to the delight of today’s bipartisan OGNG alliance.

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To the dismay of that alliance, however, the phaseout of thermal coal was offset by the Kenney government’s planned comeback of metallurgical coal in the eastern slopes. From the OGNC perspective, the heightened risk of selenium pollution in sensitive headwaters requires the end of eastern-slopes mining just as the risk of climate change justifies the demise of coal-fired power plants.

Selenium, a trace mineral that is common and even essential at low concentrations, is released at harmful levels by the extensive surface operations that now dominate coal mining. Teck Resources, which operates several mines in B.C.’s nearby Elk Valley, has discharged selenium at levels high enough to raise concerns from downstream U.S. states and to incur sizeable federal and provincial fines, including “the largest-ever penalty” — $60 million — “under the [federal] Fisheries Act.” For opponents of eastern-slopes mining, the risk of similar selenium pollution on this drier side of the continental divide, in the headwaters of Alberta’s more limited southern watershed, is just too high. As Lethbridge biologist Lorne Fitch has noted, Alberta’s mountains and foothills are “meagre by comparison” to B.C. “We depend much more on our eastern slopes, especially as a primary water source.”

The Kenney government disagreed, and in the spring of 2020 it unceremoniously rescinded the Lougheed policy in order to facilitate more eastern-slopes exploration and mining.

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If the government thought no one would notice, it was badly mistaken. So intense and persistent was the controversy generated by rescission — so much did it put Kenney “between Albertans and their mountains,” in Jen Gerson’s evocative phrase — that the government eventually relented and reinstated the policy, promising extensive public consultation on a more modern one.

Too late! Trust is at a low ebb, especially since the government clearly remains open to new surface mines in the eastern slopes. New videos, websites and webinars regularly appear, critical letters and columns keep coming. About a month after reinstatement, the council of Clearwater County, which includes about half of environment minister Jason Nixon’s constituents, voted unanimously to send the government a letter regarding its continuing concerns about eastern-slopes mining, becoming the 28th Alberta community to do so.

The government can put an end to this imbroglio by calling a halt to new coal mining in the eastern slopes. It should do so because the environmental and political risks of mining outweigh its benefits.

The most obvious benefit is jobs, but at full operation the proposed Grassy Mountain mine in the Crowsnest Pass is projected to yield about 400 positions (and some additional indirect employment). That’s not nothing, especially in tough economic circumstances, but even several new mines of this size would only modestly ameliorate Alberta’s unemployment woes.

But doesn’t every bit help in times of economic distress? Not if the “bit” on the benefit side of the ledger is outweighed by a “lot” on the cost side. The government’s hydrogen strategy offers better odds. Yes, hydrogen, which (among other things) will eventually replace coal in the steelmaking process. The government reports “estimates that by 2050, the global hydrogen sector could generate U.S.$2.5 trillion per year and create 30 million jobs.” That’s a lot of jobs, and the government means to help Albertans get their share; it intends to position the province “among the world's top suppliers of low-emission and affordable blue hydrogen.”

We should pay more attention as well as to the jobs the UCP wants to promote in tourism, infrastructure, natural gas, petrochemicals, and many other areas with better cost-benefit ratios than coal mining. Instead, we are preoccupied by an unproductive controversy about coal. The path to economic recovery lies elsewhere.

The OGNC perspective remains the best guide to that path, except that it needs a diversifying amendment. It should become OG+NC — i.e., oil-and-gas-and-tourism-and-infrastructure-and-hydrogen-&c-but Not Coal!


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